If I had a buck for every time I saw someone ask “where should I visit in Europe?” I’d be a wealthy woman.
But if you know me, you already know that I think this is the wrong question. Because we’re all so different. And what delights one person might overwhelm or bore another. What I love might not be the same as what you love.
So when someone asks, I always follow up with some questions of my own. What kind of traveler are you? What do you love? What do you hate? Are you looking for big cities? Small towns? Hiking destinations? Foodie spots? Wine regions? Europe is incredibly diverse and you’ll find all those here. But the best travel plans, in my experience, come from picking an interest or type of place and pursuing it specifically.
Which is why I occasionally post round-ups here of where to go in Europe, not based on just my own tastes but on what kind of person you are. If you’re a foodie, I’ve got one list. If you’re after ocean views, another. If cities are your thing, still another. And if hiking is your goal, yet another.
Today, I’ll continue the tradition, this time with a list of small to mid-sized towns and villages that are full of that quintessential European charm.
1. Bruges, Belgium
Go for the beer, stay for the waffles, don’t skip the mussels and fries, and plan on spending at least a couple days wandering the cobbled alleyways. The local joke here is that at least a couple times each season, tourists ask locals what time Bruges closes. It seems so much like a theme park that they have a hard time understanding that nope, this is a real, lived-in town.
If you’re on a budget, the Ibis budget hotel by the train station is decent. If you’re not on a budget, the center of town is where you’ll find all the charm. And wherever you stay, the point here is the wandering, the views, and the food.
2. Clisson, France
Once home to notorious lady pirate, Jeanne de Clisson, this small French town has grown up along the banks of a river and around a hilltop castle ruin that costs just a couple bucks to explore. The riverbank hiking trails are leisurely and lovely. And the town itself is quiet and cute.
3. Taormina, Sicily, Italy
Known as the pearl of Sicily, this glamorous little town is loved for its sweeping ocean views, adorable town center, and tasty seafood. Not to mention the incredible volcano backdrop and the short hike to a hilltop fortress long abandoned.
Don’t miss cannoli at Pignolata Guinness Cannoli and granita at Bam Bar (try the almond flavor).
4. Murren, Switzerland
Settled alongside the steep cliffs above the famous Lauterbrunnen Valley, Murren is a tiny cluster of Swiss chalets with sweeping views across the valley to the region’s three highest peaks. Go in summer for exceptional high-altitude hikes or in winter for snow adventures. In the winter, the mountain view hot tub at the local sports center is worth a soak. In any season, choose a cliff-side restaurant and grab a coffee while you soak up the views.
5. Sully-Sur-Loire, France
The castle at Sully-sur-Loire gives new meaning to the word moat. It’s basically an island unto itself. And the little town around it is equally intriguing, full of cobbled streets, yummy fresh markets (at least in summer), and just enough tourism to make it feel lively without leaving you feeling overwhelmed.
The Eurovelo 6 cycle path runs past here, so renting a bike and doing some day trips is recommended.
6. Lake Jasna, Slovenia
Tucked up above the Alps in Northern Slovenia, Lake Jasna and Kranjska Gora are quintessential mountain town landscapes. Imagine spacious wooden cabins overlooking the lake, outdoor stores and cute shops and cafes lining a tiny cobbled main street, and hiking trails winding down into the Alps, over into Italy, and up into Austria.
7. Victoria, Gozo, Malta
Located on the smaller of Malta’s two main islands, Victoria is home to stone-walled B&Bs, Italian-inspired cuisine, and very easy access to the rest of the tiny island. Get outside the town itself and onto the walking trail that rings the whole island (don’t miss the Sanap Cliffs), then head back “home” for exceptional restaurants and comfortable accommodations in the town.
8. Rovinj, Croatia
Adjacent to truffle-hunting country (Istria), this little coastal town is reminiscent of Italy with its pretty abbey and winding cobbled streets. Wander out of the center and south along the coast to find an enormous, lovely, ocean-front park. And definitely make time for day trips to Croatia’s smallest town (Hum) and other nearby Istrian charmers.
9. Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France
Located in the French basque country just north of Spain, Saint-Jean is a quiet surf town with pretty, local architecture, a charming cobbled center, and a pretty waterfront park with views down to the surf. I was only there for a day, but it’s on my to-revisit list.
If you go, make time for day trips to Bayonne for traditional hot chocolate and Biarritz for wandering, shopping, and good food.
And now, as usual, I turn to you: what are your favorite European towns or villages for charm?